Folk Song And Its Relation To Nationalism In Music

IN order to understand as well as to feel music, we must reduce it to its primary elements, and these are to be found in folk song, or, to go further back, in its predecessor, the chant of the savages.

Folk music may be likened to a twig which has fallen into a salt mine, to borrow an expression from Taine; every year adds fresh jewels to the crystals that form on it until at last the only resemblance to the original is in the general contour. We know that the nucleus of melody lies in one note, just as the origin of language is to be sought for in the word. Therefore folk music proper must be separated from what may be called barbaric music, the most primitive type of the latter being the “one-note” strain from which spring the melodies of the people. This one-note form passes through many rhythmical changes before song becomes developed to the extent of adding several notes to its means of expression. The next development of savage chanting (which is the precursor of folk song) may be traced back to its two elements, one of which was a mere savage howl, and the other, that raising of the voice under stress of strong emotion which still constitutes one of our principal means of expression.

Thus, in this barbaric music we invariably find three principles: I, rhythm; 2, the howl or descending scale of undefined intervals; and 3, the emotional raising of the voice. The rhythm, which characterizes the most primitive form of song or chant, consists of the incessant repetition of a very small group of rhythmic sounds. This incessant recurrence of one idea is characteristic of primitive, weak, or insane natures. The second principle, which invariably includes the first (pointing to a slightly more advanced state of development), is met with in many folk songs of even modern times. The third principle is one which indicates the transition stage from primitive or barbaric music to folk music.

To the primitive savage mind, the smallest rhythmic phrase is a wonderful invention, therefore it is repeated incessantly. Add to that a certain joy in mere sound, and we have the howl, which certainly follows the sequence of nature, for a thunder clap, or the phenomenon of echo, is its prototype, being a loud explosion followed by a more or less regular sequence of minor reverberations. When the accent of passion is added to these two principles — will and nature — we have laid the aesthetic foundation for all that we call music.* The example of a loud tone with gradually ascending inflections has only been found in the most perverted types of humanity; for instance, an English writer quaintly alludes to the songs of the Polynesian cannibals as consisting of “gruesomely suggestive passages of rising quarter-tones sung gloatingly before their living captives who are soon to be devoured.”

Now traces of these three elements are to be found in every folk song known, and we may even trace their influence in modem music, the lowest or most primitive being, as I have said, the “one-note” type, the next what I have called the “howl” type, the third the highest or “emotional” type.

Specimens of the first type, chants such as these are to be heard in every part of the globe, the rhythmic figure being necessarily short and repeated incessantly.

The next step was a tremendous advance, and we find its influence permeating all music. The most primitive specimens of this type we find among the Jute Indians a mixture of one and two.

The same is to be found in Australia, slightly modified.

We find it again in Hungary, although in a still more modified form, thus:

The Caribs have the same song.

And last of all we meet with it in its primitive state in the folk song used by Bizet in ” Carmen.” We can even see traces of it in the quasi-folk song of the present century.

The third element of folk song shows again a great advance, for instead of the mere howl of pleasure or pain, we have a more or less exactly graded expression of feeling. In speaking of impassioned speech I explained the relative values of the inflections of the voice, how the upward skip of the fourth, fifth, and octave indicates the intensity of the emotion causing the cry. When this element is brought into music, it gives a vitality not before possessed, for by this it becomes speech. When in such music this inflection rhymes with the words, that is to say, when the speech finds its emotional reflection in the music, we have reached the highest development of folk song. In its best state, this is immeasurably superior to much of our “made” music, only too often false in rhythm, feeling, and declamation.

Among the different nations, these three characteristics often become obscured by national idiosyncrasies. Much of the Chinese music, the ” Hymn to the Ancestors,” for instance, seemingly covers a number of notes, whereas, in fact, it belongs to the one-note type. We find that their melodies almost invariably return to the same note, the intervening sounds being more or less merely variations above and below the pitch of the principal sound.

Hungarian folk music has been much distorted by the oriental element, as represented by the zingari or gypsies. The Hungarian type of folk music is one of the highest, and is extremely severe in its contours.

The gypsy element as copied by Liszt has obscured the folk melodies by innumerable arabesques and ornaments of all sorts, often covering even a “one-note” type of melody until it seems like a complicated design.

This elaboration of detail and the addition of passing and ornamental notes to every melody is distinctly an oriental trait, which finds vent not only in music but also in architecture, designing, carving, etc. It is considered by many an element of weakness, seeking to cover a poverty of thought by rich vestments. And yet, to my mind, nothing can be more misleading. In spite of Sir Hubert Parry and other writers, I cannot think that the Moors in Spain, for instance, covered poverty of thought beneath superficial ingenuity of design. The Alhambra outdoes in “passage work,” in virtuoso arabesques, all that an army of Liszts could do in piano literature; and yet the Arabs were the saviours of science, and promoted the greatest learning and depth of thought known in Europe in their time. As for Liszt, there is such an astounding wealth of poetry and deep feeling beneath the somewhat “flashy,” bombastic trick of speech he inherited, that the true lover of music can no more allow his feelings to be led astray by such externals than one would judge a man’s mind by the cut of his coat or the hat he wears.

Thus we see the essence of folk song is comprised in the three elements mentioned, and its aesthetic value may be determined by the manner in which these elements are combined and their relative preponderance.

One point must be very distinctly understood, namely, that what we call harmonization of a melody cannot be admitted as forming any part of folk song. Folk melodies are, without exception, homophonous. This being the case, perhaps my statement that the vital principle of folk music in its best state has nothing in common with nationalism (considered in the usual sense of the word), will be better understood. And this will be the proof that nationalism, so-called, is merely an extraneous thing that has no part in pure art. For if we take any melody, even of the most pronounced national type, and merely eliminate the characteristic turns, affectations, or manner-isms, the theme becomes simply music, and retains no touch of nationality. We may even go further; for if we retain the characteristic mannerisms of dress, we may harmonize a folk song in such a manner that it will belie its origin; and by means of this powerful factor (an essentially modem invention) we may even transform a Scotch song, with all its “snap” and character, into a Chinese song, or give it an Arabian flavour. This, to be sure, is possible only to a limited degree; enough, however, to prove to us the power of harmony; and harmony, as I have said, has no part in folk song.

To define the role of harmony in music is no easy matter. Just as speech has its shadow languages, gesture and expression; just as man is a duality of idealism and materialism; just as music itself is a union of the emotional and the intellectual, so harmony is the shadow language of melody; and just as in speech this shadow language overwhelms the spoken word, so in music harmony controls the melody. For example: Imagine the words “I will kill you” being said in a jesting tone of voice and with a pleasant expression of the face; the import of the words would be lost in their expression; the mere words would mean nothing to us in comparison with the expression that accompanied them.

Take away the harmonic structure upon which Wagner built his operas and it would be difficult to form a conception of the marvellous potency of his music. Melody, therefore, may be classed as the gift of folk song to music; and harmony is its shadow language. When these two powers, melody and harmony, supplement each other, when one completes the thought of the other, then, provided the thought be a noble one, the effect will be overwhelmingly convincing, and we have great music. The contrary results when one contradicts the other, and that is only too often the case; for’ we hear the mildest waltzes dressed up in tragic and dramatic chords, which, like Bottom, “roar as gently as any sucking dove.”

In discussing the origin of speech, mention was made of those shadow languages which accompany all our spoken words, namely, the languages of expression and gesture. These were surely the very first auxiliaries of uttered speech, and in the same way we find that they constitute the first sign of advance in primitive melody. Savages utter the same thought over and over again, evidently groping after that semblance of Nirvana (or perhaps it may be better described as “hypnotic exaltation”) which the incessant repetition of that one thought, accompanied by its vibrating shadow, sound, would naturally occasion.

It was also stated that the relative antiquity or primitivity of a melody is invariably to be discovered by its degree of relationship to the original type, one note, one rhythm, the emotional, the savage howl, or, in other words, the high note followed by a gradual descent. To confirm this theory of the origin of folk song, we need only look at the aboriginal chants of widely separated peoples to find that the oldest songs all resemble one another, despite the fact that they originated in widely separated localities.

Now the difference between this primitive music and that which we call folk song is that the latter is characterized by a feeling for design, in the broadest sense of the word, entirely lacking in the former. For we find that although folk song is composed of the same material as savage music, the material is arranged coherently into sentences instead of remaining the mere exclamation of passion or a nerve exciting reiteration of unchanging rhythms and vibrations, as is the case in the music of the savage.

Before proceeding further, I wish to draw the line which separates savage from folk music very plainly.

We know that the first stage in savage music is that of one note. Gradually a tone above the original is added on account of the savage being unable to intone correctly; through stress of emotion the fifth and octave come into the chant; the sixth, being the note above the fifth, is added later, as is the third, the note above the second. Thus is formed the pentatonic scale as it is found all over the world, and it is clear, therefore, that the development of the scale is due to emotional influences.

The development of rhythm may be traced to the words sung or declaimed, and the development of design or form to the dance. In the following, from Brazil, we find a savage chant in almost its primitive state.

On the other hand, the emotional element marks another very decided change, namely, by placing more sounds at the command of the singer, and also by introducing words, which necessarily invest the song with the rhythm of language.

Thus the emotional and declamatory elements heighten the powers of expression by the greater range given to the voice, and add the poignancy and rhythm of speech to song. On the other hand, the dance gives regularity to the rhythmic and emotional sequences.

In the following examples we can see more clearly the elements of folk song as they exist in savage music.

The fact that so many nations have the pentatonic or five-note scale (the Chinese, Basque, Scotch, Hindu, etc.), would seem to point to a necessary similarity of their music. This, however, is not the case. In tracing the differences we shall find that true folk song has but few marked national traits, it is something which comes from the heart; whereas nationalism in music is an outward garment which is a result of certain habits of thought, a mannerism of language so to speak. If we look at the music of different nations we find certain characteristics; divest the music of these same characteristics and we find that the figure upon which this garment of nationalism has been placed is much the same the world over, and that its relationship to the universal language of savage music is very marked. Carmen’s song, divested of the mixture of triplets and dual rhythms (Spanish or Moorish) is akin to the “howl.”

Nationalism may be divided into six different classes:

First we have what may be broadly termed “oriental-ism,” which includes the Hindu, Moorish, Siamese, and Gypsy, the latter embracing most of southeastern European (Roumania, etc.) types. Liszt’s “Second Rhapsody,” opening section, divested of orientalism or gypsy characteristics, is merely of the savage three-note type.

Our second division may be termed the style of reiteration, and is to be found in Russia and northern Europe.

The third consists of the mannerism known as the “Scotch snap,” and is a rhythmic device which probably originated in that trick of jumping from one register of the voice to another, which has always had a fascination for people of simple natures. The Swiss jodel is the best illustration of this in a very exaggerated form.

The fourth consists of a seemingly capricious inter-mixture of dual and triple rhythm, and is especially noticeable in Spanish and Portuguese music as well as in that of their South American descendants. This distinction, however, may be traced directly back to the Moors. For in their wonderful designs we continually see the curved line woven in with the straight, the circle with the square, the tempus perfectum with the spondee. This would bring this characteristic directly under the head of orientalism or ornamental development. Yet the peculiarity is so marked that it seems to call for separate consideration.

The fifth type, like the fourth, is open to the objection that it is merely a phase of the oriental type. It consists of the incessant use of the augmented second and diminished third, a distinctively Arabian characteristic, and is to be found in Egypt, also, strange to say, occasionally among our own North American Indians. This, however, is not to be wondered at, considering that we know nothing of their ancestry. Only now and then on that broad sea of mystery do we see a half submerged rock, which gives rise to all sorts of conjectures; for example, the custom of the Jutes to wear green robes and use fans in certain dances, the finding in the heart of America of such an Arab tune as this: or such a Russian tune as this.

The last type of nationalism in folk song is almost a negative quality, its distinguishing mark being mere simplicity, a simplicity which is affected, or possibly assimilated, by the writer of such a song; for German folk song proper is a made thing, springing not from the people, but from the many composers, both ancient and modern, who have tried their hands in that direction.

While this of course takes nationalism out of the composition of German folk song so-called, the latter has undoubtedly gained immensely by it; for by thus divesting music of all its national mannerisms, it has left the thought itself untroubled by quirks and turns and a restricted musical scale; it has allowed this thought to shine out in all its own essential beauty, and thus, in this so-called German folk song, the greatest effects of poignancy are often reached through absolute simplicity and directness.

Now let us take six folk songs and trace first their national characteristics, and after that their scheme of design, for it is by the latter that the vital principle, so to speak, of a melody is to be recognized, all else being merely external, costumes of the different countries in which they were born. And we shall see that a melody or thought born among one people will change its costume when it migrates to another country.

The characteristics of German and English folk songs may be observed in the familiar airs of these nations.